Aug 9, 2023 - News

Columbia River hatchery investments fail native fish

A photo of a person holding a salmon underwater.

A sockeye salmon. Photo: Mark Conlin/VW PICS/UIG via Getty Images

Wild populations of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin continue to decline despite decades of spending to try to save the species, according to a recent study from Oregon State University and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Why it matters: Researchers found that hatcheries and habitat restoration efforts dating back 40 years cost taxpayers an estimated $9 billion (adjusted for inflation), but were unsuccessful in boosting native fish populations.

What they found: OSU economics professor William Jaeger and USGS biologist Mark Scheuerell examined decades of return data from the Bonneville Dam — the first dam salmon and steelhead meet along the Columbia River when returning to lay their eggs after spending several years in the Pacific Ocean.

  • While the number of hatchery salmon and steelhead passing through the Bonneville Dam grew since 1970, wild populations did not.
  • Researchers found 80% of the salmon that return to the Columbia River as adults came from hatcheries.

Separately, hatchery production caused a negative impact on wild stocks of salmon "through a variety of mechanisms including competition for habitat, food supply, genetic effects and disease," the authors wrote.

  • In some cases, wild fish were even being preyed upon by hatchery-born fish.

Context: Overfishing contributed to the decline in native salmon and steelhead populations since the 1800s, prompting the creation of over 200 hatcheries along the Columbia River Basin.

  • In the 1990s, 13 species of salmon in the Columbia River Basin were listed as endangered species, which in turn funneled additional billions of dollars (not included in the $9 billion studied) to local and tribal organizations to create safe passage for fish, which have been struggling to adapt to warmer water.

What they're saying: "Overall, given the mix of spending activities and the hatchery programs, we do not see evidence of a positive effect on wild fish," Jaeger told Axios in an email.

What's next: Last week, Gov. Tina Kotek signed a bill allocating $1 million and tapping a third-party assessor to examine the costs and benefits of the state's hatchery programs.


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